Which Goalie Starts Game 1?

You knew this post was coming sooner or later. With the playoffs only a week away, the Caps are going to have to settle on which one of their young goalies will start Game 1 of the playoffs and soon. The young tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth have been receiving a lot of praise this season for how good they’ve played and it’s really hard to decide which one has the upper-hand going into the playoffs. Of course, my initial answer on who starts is that it shouldn’t matter because hopefully we’ll control the pace of the play and not force the goalies to win games for us but if one of these two were to steal a game for us, who would it be? Let’s look into it.

First let’s take a glimpse at their stats:

Goalie Team GP GS SA GA SV pct GAAA /1200 z-score
Varlamov WSH 27 25 611 43 568 0.929 5.361 10.5 0.2
Neuvirth WSH 47 44 1001 79 922 0.921 0.230 0.3 0.0

GAAA = Goals Allowed Above Average. Which means how many shots a goalie has stopped above the league average. By that metric, I think Varlamov has the upper-hand and gives the team the best chance to win. However, there are some concerns I have with him. His inability to stay healthy made him play in 20 less games than Neuvirth this season. I adjusted the data to 1200 shots both goalies to correct this and Varlamov’s stats are still better by a lot. The “he can’t stay healthy” argument doesn’t work in the playoffs for me. He’s healthy now and if he gets hurt, then we roll with Neuvirth.

However, I feel that taking the starting job away from Neuvirth would be a little “unfair” seeing how he’s started about 54% of our games this season and has put up average numbers in doing so. There’s been people saying he’s the most consistent goaltender we have but the numbers suggest that he is a tad streaky.

Month EV Saves SA Save pct
October 190 207 0.918
November 154 170 0.906
December 132 145 0.910
January 59 62 0.952
February 167 180 0.928
March 169 182 0.929
Last 10 220 237 0.928
Overall 871 946 0.921

This is interesting for me because it’s suggesting that Neuvirth has actually played better the past two months than he did in October when he was arguably the team’s MVP. It is also indicating that he has been playing well lately and is coming in hot to the playoffs but he actually has a save percentage of .887 since March 21st. Varlamov’s save percentage since then is .927, granted he played in one less game than Neuvirth then.

Let’s see how Varlamov’s done through the months to see how “streaky” he is.

Month EV Saves EV SA Save pct
October 36 38 0.947
November 62 65 0.954
December 154 167 0.922
January 166 178 0.933
February 96 105 0.914
March 29 32 0.906
April 25 26 0.962

It’s hard to say much about the last two since we’re only going by two starts here but his numbers during December and January are convincing because he was playing well while the team around him wasn’t. One Caps blogger pointed out that Varly’s gotten a lot less offensive support this year than Neuvirth has. Really shows why I never look at wins when judging goalie stats because that shows more about the team’s play rather than his alone. Varly’s had his share of bad games, though but I think his ceiling is higher than Neuvirth’s and he gives us the best chance to win in the playoffs right now.

There’s also the argument that Varlamov has the edge in playoff experience since he was the team’s starting goalie during their last two trips to the post-season. He has a .915 overall save percentage during that time. Definitely pretty decent but could get better. Neuvirth has played in the last two Calder Cups in Hershey and won both of them so he isn’t a newcomer to the playoff atmosphere either, albeit the AHL is a smaller scale than the NHL.

In the end, I have to think that Varlamov should start in Game 1 given he’s been there before and has more potential to steal a few games for us if the offense disappears. That said, I don’t think we will see him in Game 1 because Bruce seems to be committed to Neuvirth. We do know that he hasn’t exactly given his goalies a long leash in the playoffs so we could see a switch if things don’t go as planned. Even if it’s everyone’s fault but Neuvirth’s. When all is said and done, I’m a Caps fan and hope whoever starts for us is a brick wall throughout the playoffs.

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